By James Niedzinski
---- — Clouds hovered over former students at Gloucester’s St. Ann School, but nothing could rain on their parade as they enjoyed some of their last moments at the Prospect Street school on Thursday playing street hockey, enjoying a bouncing castle and dining on a feast of hot dogs and cookies.
Today marks the official last day for the school, with a morning session not only closing out the school year, but the 128-year history of the venerable Catholic school. But parents and teachers tried to help students celebrate their time at the historic Catholic school on Thursday by making it fun and memorable.
”We wanted (students) to go out with a bang,” parent Jennifer Fernandes said.
Fernandes has three children in the school, Sarah, 6, is in kindergarten, 8-year-old Katie is in second grade, and 9-year-old Jack is in fourth grade.
The school, which opened in 1885, is being closed due to financial struggles and declining enrollment. The average size of each final class was fewer than eight students per grade, as the enrollment this past year slipped below 90 students. Just three years ago, the school had a high mark of 189 students enrolled.
In 2008, an outside group launched a campaign to raise $4.5 million for the school, but those prayers never came true.
Fernandes pointed Thursday to the school’s close-knit community, small school environment and quality level of education as reasons for choosing the school, and for mourning its closing.
”You got the feeling you were dropping your kids off at your parents’ house,” she said.
Other parents were also saddened about the school’s closing.
”This is like a family,” said Janelle Dombrowski, who has a 9-year-old third grader at the school.
Paul Francis — as well as other parents attending festivities Thursday — said the school’s curriculum, faculty, staff and friendly atmosphere will all be missed. Parents and students bonded at school events and fund-raisers, he said.
Some parents will be sending their children off to St. John’s or St. Mary’s catholic schools in Beverly, while others will stay in the city.
Dombrowski said she previously had her kids in Gloucester’s public schools, but even after the Catholic school closure in Gloucester, Dombrowski still prefers private school, her children will be attending St. John’s next school year.
Parents said because they were notified in late April that the school would not see another year, their options were limited and they had to make a choice quickly.
”It was a little late for us to go out of town,” Fernandes said.
Helen Torres said she is still undecided about what school her eight-year-old daughter Vanessa will be attending, it’s down to St. Mary’s in Beverly or public schools in the city. East Gloucester Elementary would be the city school Vanessa would attend, but there is no more room for second graders at the school, Torres said. Vanessa would have to be bused across the city to Plum Cove Elementary School if she stays in public school, Torres said.
Some parents Thursday remained critical of the Archdiocese of Boston for letting the school close, and only letting parents know the the school’s fate in April.
”They (the Archdiocese) should be ashamed of themselves,” Marcy Pregent said.
Like others, Pregent will be taking her child, nine-year-old Sophie to St. John’s come fall.
Teachers also joined in Thursday’s activities. Pam Sonia started teaching at the school 35 years ago, when she was just 22 years old.
Sonia, who taught both kindergarten and fifth grade at St. Ann’s, does not have another job lined up with an area Catholic school; although she does work different jobs around Gloucester.
She recalled when her classroom brimmed with students, with as many as 36 in 1978.
”This is like losing a family,” she said.
Archdiocese spokesman Terrance Donilon Thursday noted the financial realities and enrollment struggle in an email to the Times.
”The school’s projected enrollment, with an average of fewer than eight students per grade, cannot sustain the school,” he wrote. “The accompanying loss of tuition revenue compounds the sustainability issues by compromising the school’s ability to secure grants and other forms of financial assistance.”
According to Donilon, about one third (24) of the students will be going to Catholic schools nearby and a majority of the faculty and staff will be relocated as well.
“It is never easy to have to close a school,” he wrote. “Catholic education is a treasured ministry of the Church and has a long and sustained record of accomplishment throughout its history.”
St. Ann Board of Trustees Chairman Joseph Parisi III said Thursday the school did everything in its power to stay afloat.
”I fought with the Archdiocese to the last minute,” he said Thursday, but ultimately the school could not be subsidized. “They (parents) were notified as soon as the decision was made,” he said.
Parisi said he recognized that parents were upset when they learned about the closing in April, but said he kept everyone up to date with enrollment and financial difficulties throughout the years. Parisi, who attended the school himself, as did his a number of his relatives and children, said gifts and donations were not enough to keep it going, and donations are harder to get if the enrollment keeps shrinking.
“Every year it was a challenge,” Parisi said.
He also pointed to the shrinking number of children in the city as a whole, estimating that St. Ann School never drew more than 10 percent of the city’s student population.
“I feel so bad we are closing the school,” he said, “(but) the realities are you can’t pay (employees) and utilities with eight kids (per class).”
James Niedzinski can be reached at 978-283-7000, x 3455 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.